Janos Starker, cellist, July 5, 1924-April 28, 2013
Today, remembering him, we revisit an early post.
I first heard this music—Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello—nearly 40 years ago. At the local public library where I was going to college, I happened upon some recordings—a boxed set of three LPs on the Mercury label—by Janos Starker, which I proceeded to check out over and over again. In the years since, first on my turntable and then my CD player, a lot of music has come and gone. These pieces have remained.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello
Janos Starker, live, Tokyo, 1988
1st Movement (Prelude)
2nd Movement (Allemande)
3rd Movement (Courante)
4th Movement (Sarabande)
5th Movement (Bourree)
6th Movement (Gigue)
From the New York Times obituary (Margalit Fox, 4/29/13):
Janos Starker, one of the 20th century’s most renowned cellists, whose restrained onstage elegance was amply matched by the cyclone of Scotch, cigarettes and opinion that animated his offstage life, died on Sunday at a hospice in Bloomington, Ind. He was 88.
Indiana University, where he was a distinguished professor of music, announced his death.
A Hungarian-born child prodigy who later survived internment by the Nazis during World War II, Mr. Starker appeared, in the decades after the war, on the world’s most prestigious recital stages and as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras. He was part of a vaunted triumvirate that included Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-76) and Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), collectively the most celebrated cellists of the day.
He was also widely known through his more than 150 recordings, including one of Bach’s six suites for solo cello for which he won a Grammy Award in 1998.
Mr. Starker played several magnificent cellos during his career — including the “Lord Aylesford” Stradivarius of 1696, a 1707 Guarnerius and a 1705 instrument by the great Venetian maker Matteo Goffriller — but he nonetheless managed to resist the seductions of the instrument to which cellists can fall prey.
The chief hallmark of his playing was a conspicuous lack of schmaltz. Effusive sentiment is an inherent risk of the cello, with its thundering sonorities and timbre so like the human voice. He also shunned the dramatic head tossing and body swaying to which many cellists incline.
“I’m not an actor,” he said in a 1996 interview with the Internet Cello Society, an online fraternity of cellists and devotees. He added, with characteristic candor, “I don’t want to be one of those musicians who appears to be making love to himself onstage.”
Unlike many acclaimed string players, Mr. Starker used a lean, judicious vibrato — the minute, rapid variations in pitch by the left hand that can enrich a note’s sound but can also border on the histrionic. Excessive vibrato, he said, was like “a woman smearing her whole face with lipstick.”
While the musical style that resulted was too dispassionate for some critics’ taste, others praised Mr. Starker’s faultless technique; purity of tone; clean, polished phrasing; and acute concern with the composer’s intent. His style was especially well suited to the Bach suites, canonical texts for the instrument, which he recorded on several occasions.
“The technical aspects of Mr. Starker’s playing are so wholly merged in the solution to problems of interpretation and style that the listener tends to forget how much technical mastery the cellist has achieved,” Raymond Ericson wrote in The New York Times in 1962, reviewing a recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The pitch is unerringly right, the tone is mellow without being mushy, difficult leaps and runs are manipulated with the easy unobtrusiveness of a magician.”